December 11 2020
This is part of our ongoing series, called DTL (that stands for Down to Learn), where we take deep dives into the odd, nuanced and mysterious world of sustainability. Each article in our series should give you a good icebreaker for your next Zoom, or perhaps even inspire you.
Sadly, communal bathing was obviously one of the first things that had to go when coronavirus hit. We miss the hammams of Istanbul and Tehran, but the good news is, we managed to find a way to bring home a few super sustainable tips and tricks that you can tackle on a budget in your own shower or bathroom. Stay clean, cozy, and planet-friendly with a few of our favorite ways to bring the hammam to you.
There are about as many different opinions about where the hammam originated as there are cultures who practice some form of its steamy, soapy bathing ritual. Some say the hammam is a strictly Turkish ritual, though many folks will argue. Others suggest it was inspired by Roman and Byzantine public bathing, popularized by 600 AD. The Romans began bathing in public regularly much earlier, actually around 300BC, and public, co-ed bathing and socializing was popular among rich and poor Romans alike. Even before that, one of the world's earlier baths was erected around 2500 BC in Mohenjo-Daro, in present day Pakistan. It looks like, truthfully, the practice of using water and heat to relax and release toxins, stress and dirt from the body goes allllll the way back to the Neolithic age, when nomads would hop into hot springs.
This is all to say, that the "Turkish Bath" is just one word for an experience that people have shared since, well, there were people. There's the Japanese onsen, the Russian banya, the Korean jimjilbang, the Lakota sweat lodge, Finnish sauna, and Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian hammam, the latter of which is where we're drawing inspiration from as of late.
Hammam is actually an Arabic word, and not a Turkish one, and originates from the root word "hamma", or "heating up." Spending time in the hammam is about more than getting clean or having "good" hygiene— it's a social activity, and for many folks, a ritual ablution. If you've ever been to a hammam, you know it's really super different than just taking a steamy shower at home: there are different temperatures, lots of steam, and also other people there too. You're likely to get a scrub down with a kese, and to have not just one but perhaps even several buckets of water dumped on your head.
Speaking of being different than your shower, hammams are generally better looking too— whether it's the Andalusian hammams of Spain or Portugal, Seljuk era hammams in Turkey or Ottoman era ones in the Balkans, there are a lot of different design interpretations. What you'll find in common? Calming, moody color, thoughtful use of tile and metal accents, fountains, and open shared space.
Other things you'll find in common? The tools of the trade. That's where sustainability comes into the game. (Though sharing showering resources with others and limiting yourself to a deep clean once or twice a week is inherently more sustainable than using gallons of water solo on a shower by yourself once or twice a day.) We mentioned that kese earlier— it's a crucial tool, and a really, super sustainable alternative to loofahs or even exfoliating products. A kese is a blend of cotton and silk that you can wear like a mitt. It physically removes dead skin, no product necessary. In fact, it works much better without soap or shampoo in the way of things. To use it, get nice and hot in the shower and let the heat really open your pores and warm your skin. Without applying anything to the kese, gently run it over your body with light pressure. Gentle is the operative word here, though admittedly, the folks at the hammam are not so gentle.
Technically, the kese is totally zero-waste, since it lasts about 5-10 years (!!!) with proper care, and is biodegradable once you're finished with it. 5-10 years is a hell of a lot longer than the scrub you've been buying. It's paper light and stores flat too, which means it's a lot less carbon-intensive to ship than jars and tubes of body scrub. It happens to also be way, way more affordable at only $15, in addition to living longer than a hamster or a fish.
After your thorough scrub with the kese, you're basically a hammam pro, and you're good to go on using other products, like soap or shampoo. Most hammams are more water-focused than product-focused, but at fancy pants ones in hotels or palaces or touristy areas, you can get a treatment. If you're inspired, this is a great time to do a face mask or use your fancy body wash.
An important part of bringing the hammam experience home and keeping it sustainable (besides picking sustainable soap and shampoo and conditioner, duh) is toweling off gently and thoughtfully. We turn to a Turkish towel, or pestemal to do the job. Pestemals are at least as old as Turkish baths, and we can date them back to the 7th century AD. Ours are also quite old— well, sort of. A family-run atellier in Southern Turkey that has been making pestemals for decades looms all of our pestemals from natural fibers. They're technically biodegradable, but what makes them even more sustainable is that they air dry really efficiently, saving you time, energy and money on a dryer cycle. (Air drying your laundry, while not always within reach, is the most sustainable option!)
After toweling off the bod and the hair, we like to wrap ourselves in a robe made of the same material as the traditional pestemal, also a hammam classic. There's cozier, but they're also breathable and comfortable if you are continuing to take in the heat and steam of your DIY hammam. The pockets are roomy enough for you to keep wearing it long after your bathing ritual and well into the rest of the day or night. Or, in quarantine times, truly forever. We won't tell if you don't.